The Wheels of History: Museums, Restitution and the Caribbean – Part 2

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Jamaican Taino – Figure with canopy (facing left) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is the second of a two-part post on the restitution debate and its significance to the Caribbean. The first part explores the general context and this second part explores the implications for the Caribbean.

The Caribbean was one of the first world areas to be colonized by Europe, and was completely transformed in the process, with momentous changes in the population and culture. Inevitably, the Caribbean was also one of the early sources for European museums as these emerged, in tandem  with the colonial project. The objects and natural specimens that were acquired and documented in Jamaica by Hans Sloane, who served as the physician of the colonial governor from 1687 to 1689, for instance, became part of the foundational collections of  the British Museum. As I have discussed in another post, certain illustrations in Sloane’s book A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (2 vols., 1707-1725) are among the earliest sources on the material culture and arts of the enslaved Africans in the island.

Having been present at the birth of the modern museum, so to speak, we could expect the Caribbean to be strongly invested in the debates that surround the subject, including the question of postcolonial restitution. If what I have personally observed is anything to go by, however, most persons in the Caribbean who are aware of these debates are in agreement that restitution is necessary, but there does not seem to be a lot of passion or discussion about the subject. I assume that there is a prevailing sense that this is about “elsewhere,” mainly about Europe and Africa, and that this does not directly apply to the Caribbean. While there are indeed no high-profile restitution requests from or pertaining to the Caribbean at the present time, there are however significant Caribbean holdings in European and North American museums that were problematically acquired during the colonial era, and some of these could certainly be the subject of restitution requests on the part of Caribbean countries. And conversely, there are public and private collections in the Caribbean that could be the target of such requests, while regional practices with regards to acquisitions often fall short of international standards with regards to provenance. The subject is worthy of a dissertation but I will discuss a few specific instances that have been the subject of some contention.

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Jamaican Taino – The Bird Man (800-1500) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum holds three Taino wood sculptures of Zemis (deities) from Jamaica, which are among the best known examples of Taino art. They were found in 1792 by a surveyor in a cave in Carpenter’s Mountain in what was then the Parish of Vere, now southern Manchester. They were in 1799 shown and reviewed at the Society of Antiquaries in London and later entered the British Museum collection. None of them are on view at the present time, although they have been exhibited regularly, at the British Museum and elsewhere, and they have also been studied, written about and reproduced with regular frequency. The canopy figure, which is the smallest of the three sculptures, is the most recently exhibited: it was shown in 2015-2016 at the National Museum of Singapore in the exhibition Treasures of the World’s Cultures, a touring exhibition of works from the British Museum collection.

None of the Carpenter’s Mountain carvings have however ever been exhibited in Jamaica or, for that matter, elsewhere in the Caribbean. Plaster casts were sent to the Institute of Jamaica in 1939 and there has been some speculation that this may have been in response to an early restitution request, although there is no such record (Ostapkowicz 2015, Part I). These plaster casts were part of the permanent exhibits at the Taino Museum (formerly known Arawak Museum), that opened in 1965 at White Marl, a major Taino settlement and midden site in St Catherine. That museum has been closed for several years (with some plans for it to be relocated to Twin Sisters Cave in Hellshire) and the casts are at the National Museum Jamaica. This situation, too, requires  attention.

The National Gallery of Jamaica has requested the loan of these carvings on two occasions.  The first was when David Boxer was preparing his inaugural exhibition for the recently established National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ), which was to be a first survey of Jamaican art history. According to what he repeatedly told me, the loan was declined or not even responded to, and he therefore decided to survey the art from the start of the colonial period onward. The resulting exhibition was Five Centuries of Art in Jamaica (1975) and was a seminal effort in how Jamaica’s art history was articulated. The second attempt was for the Arawak Vibrations exhibition in 1994, which was presented on the occasion of Jamaica’s quincentennial, but apparently the NGJ was, ironically, unable to meet the British Museum’s stringent loan requirements.

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Jamaican Taino – Male figure (Boinayel?), 15th century © The Trustees of the British Museum

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The Wheels of History: Museums, Restitution and the Caribbean – Part 1

 

This is the first of a two-part post on the restitution debate and its significance to the Caribbean. This first part explores the general context and the second part  specifically looks at the Caribbean.

It is a time of reckoning for museums: museums are increasingly pressured to come to terms with their historical origins, their past and present ideological foundations, the manner in which they have acquired their collections, and the cultural and social politics in which they are embedded. There has been intensified debate recently about the association between museums and colonialism, and about the manner in which they are governed and funded. Such challenges have come at the state-political level, such as the high-profile, country-to-country restitution negotiations that have captured the attention of the international media recently, and from activist groups such as Decolonize This Place. My earlier post about the renovation of the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, Belgium, also speaks to some of these issues.

Over the last few months, I have posted a significant number of recent articles and essays on the restitution, decolonization, and museums debate to a Facebook site I manage, the Critical.Caribbean.Art page, using the #restitution hashtag. I will not seek to retrace the entire argument here – you can read more about that via the Facebook site, if you have not already done so — but I do want to focus on a few issues that have, at least in my view, received insufficient attention with regards to the restitution requests between the former colonizing states and their former colonies. Passionate debates, and the manner in which these are reported in the media, along with the instant “call-out” culture that prevails on social media, do not always leave much room for nuance or for the careful consideration of contrary positions, even though this is a necessary part of the conversation on issues such as restitution.

The current media frenzy may create the impression that the restitution debate is new and that it is being fiercely and universally resisted by North American and European museums (although this latter perception has not been helped by the ill-conceived public pronouncements of certain high profile museum professionals such as the British Museum Director who recently defended Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon sculptures from Greece, which took place in the early 19th century, as a creative act).

The restitution debate in actuality emerged in the period after World War II and there were two major triggers.  One was the end of European colonialism and the emergence of postcolonial cultural nationalism, which resulted in postcolonial nation-states seeking greater control of their cultural heritage. The other was the Nazi looting of European museums (and Jewish-owned private collections) during the war. Curtailing the illicit trade in cultural property, which was and still is a problem, became a major preoccupation of UNESCO, which was established in 1945, and its various treaties and conventions on the subject have provided a regulatory framework and offer legal and ethical guidance in such matters (although these are not universally signed and adopted by member states).

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The Elephant in the Museum

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Chéri Samba –  Réorganisation, 2002, Collection: AfricaMuseum

Late last month, on December 28 to be precise, I visited what is now branded as the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, a suburb of Brussels. My visit, during a family vacation to Belgium, came just a few weeks after the museum had reopened, after being closed for about five years for extensive renovations. The 86 million USD renovation involved: the expansion of the building with a new Visitor Centre (a futurist glass pavilion) and a connecting underground passage; the restoration of the main building; the re-curation of the permanent exhibitions and reinterpretation of the collections; as well as several contemporary art commissions. Because of its origins in the most troubled part of Belgium’s colonial history, and the exceptional African collections it holds, the renovated museum has found itself at the epicenter of the recent debates about restitution and the decolonization of museums. On the eve of its official re-opening on December 8, the French daily Le Soir published an interview with the then President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Joseph Kabila, in which he announced that there would be formal demands for the return of art works and other objects from the AfricaMuseum, and that a new national museum was being constructed in Kinshasa, with funding and technical assistance from the Korean government. Guido Gryseels, the present Director of the AfricaMuseum, indicated that the museum would consider such requests.

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A crowded AfricaMuseum on December 28, 2018

The AfricaMuseum’s full and proper name is the Royal Museum for Central Africa and it has been one of the most controversial museums in Western Europe, because of its direct association with the most questionable and violent part of Belgium’s colonial history, namely King Leopold II’s Congo Free State (1885-1908). During this episode, Leopold II ruled the Congo area as the absolute monarch of a personal fiefdom and he enabled and personally profited from the economic exploitation of this populous, naturally rich part of Africa, at the expense of severe human rights abuses, which included widespread forced labor and atrocities against the local population. As many as 10 million Congolese, or about half of the estimated population, perished as a direct or indirect result, and there were also many documented instances of physical abuse and torture, such as the infamous hand amputations of members of communities that did not produce their rubber tapping quota. International outrage grew and in 1908 the territory became a Belgian colony, overseen by the Belgian parliament and known as the Belgian Congo, until Independence in 1960.

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The museum’s entrance, prior to the recent renovation (Image source: Wikimedia)

The AfricaMuseum, which has been described by Gryseels as “the last colonial museum,” has its origins in 1897 as a propagandist showcase of Leopold II’s Congo Free State, which was presented as part of the colonial section of the Brussels World Exhibition that year. Further adding to the problematic foundations of the museum, this colonial display notoriously also featured a “human zoo” at the same royal domain where the original museum building, then called the Palace of the Colonies, is located. This zoo took the form of a staged “African village,” for which 257 Congolese persons were brought to Belgium, seven of whom died as a result of the ordeal.

The present, larger  museum building, which is located in the same park, dates from 1904 and was constructed to accommodate the rapid expansion of the museum collections. Today, the AfricaMuseum holds one of the world’s most prized collections of Central African art, as well as significant natural history, history and ethnography collections, most of it pertaining to what is now the DRC, Rwanda, and Burundi. The collection comprises some 180,000 artifacts, many of them rare and quite extraordinary. Save for some changes in the late 1950s, the permanent exhibitions had changed very little since the museum’s establishment and, as Gryseels has acknowledged, the old museum could itself be regarded as a museum artifact, that embodied a particular way of thinking about museums, the state, and colonialism. This way of thinking has been a foundational and controversial part of the history of the modern museum, hence the ongoing debates about decolonizing the museum. The recent renovation is a major intervention and the first one such in the museum’s history. One section, the popular “Crocodile Hall,” which is part of the natural history exhibitions, was restored to its original condition in the new museum installation, where it contributes, along with dramatically redesigned and updated sections, to the new, critical dialogues the museum seeks to provoke about its collections and its own history.Read More »